An Answer Under Our Feet

Last night my boyfriend and I walked past a police station, a few blocks from our hostel in La Paz, Bolivia. A banner hung outside, declaring “Nothing Justifies Violence” and reminding passersby that women deserve to live a life free of violence.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality for most Bolivian women. Bolivia’s Vice-Ministry of Equal Opportunities (VIO) reports that violence is perpetrated against nine out of ten women in Bolivia.

Nine out of ten. Prior to this trip, I spent time researching women’s rights in South America, with a special focus on land rights in Bolivia. The information on violence and femicide is shocking. And all that knowledge on sexual and physical violence against women sits heavy in my head as I walk around La Paz. I feel the weight of that knowledge as I move around the city, realizing that nearly every woman and girl who passes me has been exposed to this violence. Nine out of ten.

So what’s being done? Fortunately, there are organizations dedicated to the difficult work of eliminating gender-based violence and promoting economic equality for women. And one of the most unique ways this is happening in Bolivia is through land rights. The history of land ownership in Bolivia is complex. Dating back 500 years to the Spanish conquest, and worsening during 1970's, Bolivia was owned by a few wealthy families; a majority indigenous country, nearly all the landowners were non-indigenous.

President Evo Morales, currently on his third term, ran in 2006 on a platform of indigenous rights. As the first indigenous president, a major part of his campaign involved dividing up the large landholdings and returning tracts to the indigenous people, who often toiled in poverty as sharecroppers for the landholding elite. However, one unfortunate side effect of this redistribution of land was a severe gender imbalance. While trying to equitably share the economic and social benefits of landownership, the parceling again divided landownership unequally, but this time along gender lines.

Migration has concentrated many Bolivians in peri-urban, informal settlements on the edges of major cities, such as Cochabamba. Women head over one-third of these increasing urban households, and they (and their families) are most at-risk of eviction or abuse from informal landlords.

A peri-urban settlement at the edges of La Paz, showing the extreme poverty and instability of this housing.

Fortunately, some organizations recognized these problems and used them as a catalyst to address gender discrimination, in land ownership and beyond. In 2012, more than 2 million Bolivian women earned the right to own land and have their names listed on property deeds. This major step forward was accomplished when Cochabamba’s novel Women’s Leadership Network, a group stemming from Habitat for Humanity’s “School of Women Leaders on Secure Tenure”, presented a proposed change to established land tenure law; on June 5, 2012 women legally gained the right to have their names on joint or family owned land; prior to this, only men had legal recognition as land owners.

This legal victory was the result of a partnership between Habitat for Humanity and Bolivian NGOs CIUDADANIA and Gregoria Apaza; in 2011 they founded the “School of Women Leaders on Secure Tenure”. The schools operated in different communities within Cochabamba’s ninth district and served as hubs for educating women on their “rights, responsibilities, and barriers to accessing secure tenure”. By June 2013, approximately 275 women and 31 men were trained in “low-cost technical solutions for land survey, such as GPS; participatory mechanisms for conflict resolution, and the legal significance of different property documents required to access their property rights”.

The success from such a comprehensive project were significant, beyond the legal achievement on land titling. Women from the Leadership Network demonstrated significant gains in leadership positions, legal knowledge, and public speaking. Empowering women through the regulatory process and allowing them to overcome legal and cultural barriers through education dramatically shifted their status. One female participant in the “School of Women Leaders on Secure Tenure” stated that they have moved “from begging to demanding” their rights, a major accomplishment for women who are almost universally abused and denied equal rights.

Land ownership is only one piece of the solution, but it is a catalyst for many other social, physical, and economic improvements. Imagine the progress that could be made if the Women’s Leadership Network was funded annually and expanded across the whole country? Or the continent?Because there are serious, negative repercussions if policy makers attempt to solve violence against women and insecure land ownership with isolated approaches:

Without gender-specific interventions and strategies, we will be solving land ownership issues, but perpetuating systematic discrimination against women.

So I hope that this innovative solution can be shared and implemented on a wider scale. It’s only a piece of the larger solution, but facilitating fair and gender-balanced land ownership is a collaborative method to proven success. We’re not there yet, but that police banner is right: Bolivian women do deserve to live a life free of violence. So let’s do what we can to give them that.

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